Future historians of Christianity may well describe the century just past as the age of ecumenism; some have already given it that label. Yet the modern ecumenical movement has almost completely failed to attain its one overriding goal: the reunion of divided Christian communities. The great labor of ecumenism has barely managed to dent the walls of separation that keep the divided Christian denominations from a genuinely common life—above all a common eucharistic life. Zeal and energy for more ecumenical work are understandably in short supply, and it would be rash to expect even the relatively modest gains of recent years to be duplicated in the next generation. Protestant and Catholic, East and West, Christians remain divided—and seem by and large content with their separation. For anyone who cares about the ecumenical cause, to say nothing of those who have devoted the best energies of their churchly and theological lives to it, this is a hard and bitter pill.
Why has it come to this? Explanations abound, but one possibility, while clear enough on the pages of the Old and New Testaments, has only rarely been voiced. It is easy to understand why, because this possibility is too fearful for Christians, whether friends or foes of ecumenism, to contemplate for long. Perhaps ecumenism has failed because God has abandoned the Church—withdrawn from it His Holy Spirit, and so consigned the Church to death. We need to face the dreadful possibility that ecumenism as we have practiced it with so much learning and good will for over a century has failed because God wants it to fail. Not that God is indifferent to Christian division, as ecumenism’s foes allow themselves to think. On the contrary: in God’s stringently merciful providence, death is the only destiny good enough for a willfully divided Church.
One recent writer has faced this possibility directly. In The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Eerdmans, 1998), Episcopal priest and theologian Ephraim Radner makes a remarkably learned and provocative (if at times convoluted) case for Christians not simply to consider, but to accept, that God means to bring down the divided Church. Only in the deliberate departure of the Spirit from the Church can we find an adequate explanation for the hardened durability of Christian division and the striking contentment of Christians with their shattered communal life. Modern ecumenism’s valiant attempt to overcome these divisions has yielded such meager results because of ecumenism’s own deep, if sometimes uneasy, complicity in the assumptions and logic of division.
At present we can only await the mysterious working out of the triune God’s judgment and grace upon our divisions, and upon our inadequate attempts to surmount them. In the meantime, as Radner rightly argues, we must lend a hand to the ecumenical enterprises already underway. This is part and parcel of the loyalty God demands of us, precisely toward the “empty precincts” of our Godforsaken churches. Like Israel in exile, mourning for desolate Zion, we can only love the Church, for whose ruin we have no one to blame but ourselves: “You will rise up and have compassion on Zion. . . . For your servants love her very rubble, and are moved to pity even for her dust” (Psalm 102:13–14).
I have elsewhere offered a detailed analysis and assessment of Radner’s profound and disturbing book (Modern Theology, July 2000). My aim here is not to pre sent his argument, but to pursue some of the troubling issues he raises. Readers who pick up Radner’s book will quickly see how much these reflections owe to him. Outlandish though some of his ideas might seem at first, they are more difficult to ignore than one might suppose.
It may seem peculiar to suppose that anything important, let alone the very presence of God among Christians, hangs on the eucharistic unity of the divided denominations. Theologians and laity alike sometimes vehemently contest the ecumenical policies of their national churches, and lobby to maintain the long–standing denominational status quo (witness the furor in American Lutheranism over the recent agreement to enter into “full communion” with the Episcopal Church). One often hears the argument that faithfulness to the theological insight of a particular tradition, its unique discernment of the gospel’s heart, requires continued separation from other churches.
But for many American Christians officially sponsored ecumenism is not so much an affront to traditional denominational sensibilities as an irrelevance that keeps getting in the way. On this view, attempts to bring about Christian unity from the top down by overcoming traditional doctrinal barriers ignore the obvious need for different kinds of Christianity to meet the needs and tastes of different kinds of people. Or, worse, they are feeble attempts by the denominations to retain some of their lost power and control over the lives of Christians. At the local level, we already have all the unity we need. At least among Protestants, our members are free to come and go among our congregations as they like, regardless of denomination. The eucharist is no barrier. Most Protestant congregations either make little of it or now practice open communion, inviting all the baptized—and increasingly everyone present, baptized or not—to share the sacramental meal. A common ministry we may technically lack, since the divided denominations still have to issue credentials for ordained ministers. But this makes little difference in practice. We can cooperate, or not, to whatever extent it serves local needs, in particular the need for growth.
This outlook helps explain the predatory relationship that so often obtains among Christian congregations in America. In every city, suburb, and village, countless churches must grow or die. They therefore compete fiercely for each other’s members, and the old denominational boundaries mean little. If a given Sunday’s visitors happen to come from the church on the next corner, few pastors or lay leaders will have any qualms about recruiting them for their congregation. Whether the denomination of their last church was different from—or the same as—ours seldom matters much. It’s not just every denomination, but every congregation, for itself.
In this setting open communion is hardly an unambiguously unifying gesture. Whatever the intention behind it, the message is often clear enough: it doesn’t matter where you come from—even if you come from Rome. If it’s the eucharist you want, we’ll give it to you right now, no questions asked. We Protestants, it appears, practice open communion not because it is important that our congregations and denominations celebrate the eucharist together (this rarely happens), but because it hurts church growth not to invite people to take part. While often enough well meant, open communion readily turns into a proselytizing tool. If this free exchange—and pursuit—of each other’s members is all the unity we need, then local cooperation has neither solved nor bypassed the ecumenical problem of denominational disunity, but has simply made it worse.
The disunity of competing congregations apparently stems from the same source as the long–running eucharistic disunity of competing denominations: what Radner calls a “contradiction of ecclesial love.” This refusal of love need be neither vicious nor petty. It only requires that we persistently place our own interests above those of Christ’s whole body. These interests can be quite legitimate as far as they go, whether the purity of our doctrine or the growth of our congregation. But when our own interests, however legitimate, matter more to us than our unity with all the other members of Christ’s body (offensive to us though some of Christ’s members may be), then we love ourselves more than his body—and more than its head.
Christian congregations did not always tolerate the contradiction of love so readily as we now do. In the early days of Christianity, a baptized person traveling outside his own city would carry a letter from his bishop so that he could be received at the eucharist in another city’s congregation. Such a gesture presumes that Christian congregations all belong to one body—Christ’s own—in which every member already has a share. The bishop’s or pastor’s job is not to steal someone else’s sheep, but to shepherd any member of the flock who happens to come within his reach. At the same time membership in the Church was not offered to anyone who walked in the door. Preparation for baptism frequently took several years. Especially after the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, the Church was often notably cautious about admitting new members.
In this setting the very idea of churches, local or denominational, competing with one another for members was not so much regrettable as incomprehensible. You don’t prey upon your own body. How could the mouth vie with the ear to see who gets the foot? Of course this doesn’t mean that there were no dissensions and divisions in the early Church; there were plenty. But even when they fell short of separated eucharists and ministries—full–fledged schism—Christians in the ancient world sensed that this failure of love threatened the very existence of the Church. So Clement of Rome, writing to the church at Corinth around the end of the first century: “Why are there strife and passion, schisms and even war among you? Do we not possess the same Spirit of grace that was given to us and the same calling in Christ? Why do we tear apart and divide the body of Christ? Why do we revolt against our own body? Why do we reach such a degree of insanity that we forget that we are members one of another? . . . Your division has led many astray, has made many doubt, has made many despair, and has brought grief upon us all.”
The reasons why the early Christians set such great store by their unity with one another are not far to seek; the New Testament spells them out with disarming clarity. Whatever else the Church may be, it is Christ’s body, and Christ cannot be divided (note Paul’s astonished repudiation of the very suggestion of this in 1 Corinthians 1:13). The Church’s unity in Christ is not simply a goal to be sought, still less an impossible ideal. It is a present reality—as much a reality as the risen Christ himself. In baptism the Holy Spirit makes members of the Church by joining us in love to Christ and, equally, to one another. Paul does not implore the Ephesians to seek by the Spirit’s power a unity they presently lack, but to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), the very bond that holds together the one body of Christ (cf. Colossians 3:14–15).
The love and peace the Spirit gives are inseparable, above all, from the eucharist. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). The love that unites Christians around the Lord’s table is not an invisible tie that we might succeed or fail at making known to the world, but which persists in any case. In the New Testament the eucharistic unity of the Church is an entirely public and visible bond. The love on display in the Church’s eucharist is, indeed, the means by which the world is to believe the gospel and come to know the triune God (cf. John 13:35). The Spirit forms Christ’s public body, gathered around the eucharist, simply by giving us a share in his own love. This love is the same bond that eternally unites the Spirit to Christ and both to the Father from whom they come forth. What visibly unites the Church in time is nothing less than the one love that eternally unites the persons of the triune God: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (John 17:21; cf. 17:23).
Of course since we are commanded to abide in this love, to “maintain” it, it follows that we may also forsake it, and the New Testament is equally plain about the consequences of this contradiction of love. When any of us—congregations, denominations, or whatever—goes ahead with our own supper, regardless of whether the whole body can share and rejoice in it, then “it is not really the Lord’s supper” that we eat (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:20–21). When we go about our eucharists “without discerning the body”—surely not, in the context of Paul’s polemic against Corinthian factionalism, the risen flesh of Christ in the eucharistic elements, but the ecclesial body with which the eucharist is supposed to unite us—then our eating and drinking fails to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”; instead we “eat and drink judgment” against ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:26–29). From our sectarian eucharists, open or closed, the risen Christ is absent. A divided Church proclaims the Lord’s death, all right, but not the death of a Lord who yet lives and will come again; not the Lord’s death, but simply a dead Lord. A Church of separate and competing eucharists cannot, in other words, reveal the gospel of the resurrection to the world. It can only veil the gospel, not only from the world, but from itself. And, to recall Paul one last time (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:3), a community to which the gospel is veiled is a perishing community, itself a body slated for death.
Where love is contradicted the Church must perish. But equally the Church must die where truth is contradicted. Surely disunity is the price, great and tragic though it may be, we have sometimes had to pay for the truth of the gospel. So all the parties to the divisions that stem from the sixteenth century have traditionally maintained. For the sake of the gospel we have had to accept division, rather than remain part of a single eucharistic community and bear its self–inflicted wounds and dissensions in hope and love. Roman Catholicism has maintained this assumption as much as the various forms of Protestantism. But let us look at the matter from a Protestant point of view.
Whatever our ecumenical orientation, we Protestants will naturally insist that the divisions of the sixteenth century were a faithful and legitimate ecclesial response to the abuses of the medieval Church and the threat to the gospel that they presented. Some may regard the divided Western Church as an avoidable tragedy, others as a lamentable necessity, some (though once of course virtually all) as a liberation still to be celebrated. But few will finally contest that in the circumstances, the Reformers took the best option available to them. Roman Catholic theology too now usually accepts the legitimacy of the Reformation protest against the late medieval Church and its theology, even if it tends, understandably, not to endorse the division that resulted.
Surely, one might argue in defense of the Reformation, disunity is tolerable if the gospel itself is at stake. The Reformers for the most part did not initiate division, but reluctantly accepted it late in the game, after repeated efforts to maintain the unity of the Western Church had failed. By accepting disunity only for the sake of the gospel, it might seem as if the Reformers put as high a value on the public unity of the Church as it is possible for Christians to do. Nothing less than the gospel, and thereby Christ himself, could authorize us to accept a divided Church.
But how could the Church be divided “for the sake of” the gospel? The Reformers believed that the gospel itself was under relentless attack from the most powerful forces in the Church. Let us assume that they were right about this. If the gospel authorizes us under such circumstances to set up our own church, then in effect we have Christ’s command to dismember his own body—the same body that, as the New Testament teaches, Christ does not despise, but nourishes, cares for, and loves unto death (cf. Ephesians 5:29). Even modest and ecumenically uncontroversial accounts of the Reformation’s legitimacy apparently end up, in Radner’s phrase, making Christ “the very type of schism.” Of course in the sixteenth century Rome was at least equally willing to carve up the wounded body, sometimes by murderous persecution. But one has to wonder whether being the victim of persecution really gives us the right to divide the Church—to match our tormentors’ lack of ecclesial love with our own.
What, though, was the alternative? Here again Radner makes a striking suggestion. The Church’s post–Reformation history, he argues, does in fact present an arresting paradigm of how to respond to assaults on the gospel without resorting to division: Jansenism. Especially in the wake of the papal Constitution Unigenitus (1713), the already beleaguered Jansenists saw themselves confronted with the problem that had faced Protestants in the sixteenth century: “How could one stay bound to a Church whose leadership had apparently attacked basic truths of the gospel?” They self–consciously refused, however, the Protestant solution. In an immense literature reflecting on their plight and seeking a scripturally faithful response to it, the Jansenist Appellants determined that there would be no Jansenist church, no separated ministry, sacraments, and congregations. When forces opposed to Christ and his gospel are afoot in the Church—in fact seem to hold sway—for the sake of Christ and the gospel we must refuse submission to them, and live with the consequences. This the Jansenists did, for almost two centuries. We may appeal from papal authority to a future council, as the Protestants had done before. But we may not leave the Church. Even if excommunicated, we must remain loyal to it. The faithful response to such ecclesial misery, as theologians like Augustine and Radbertus had already suggested, is not separation, but solidarity with Christ’s wounded body—to suffer, as Radner puts it, “Jesus’ suffering for the Church.”
Of course Jansenism has vanished into history, while we Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and so forth are still around—as, indeed, is a separate Roman Catholic Church, sometimes apparently still determined to go it alone. Each of us might be inclined to claim our continued existence as a victory for the cause of the gospel in the world, at least as interpreted and defended by our own particular community. But if the gospel offers no authorization to dismember Christ’s body, then the survival of separated communities, however passionately each seeks to defend the Christian message in its truth and purity, cannot be taken as the gospel’s triumph. On the contrary, as Vladimir Soloviev already suggested a century ago: “The cause of the general failure of the Christian enterprise . . . lies not in the protective Christianity of the East and not in the active Christianity of the West, but in their anti–Christian separation.” The Jansenist movement eventually disappeared just because the Jansenists were unwilling to defend the gospel by an action against the gospel. In this acquiescence to what Radner calls “its own disappearance as an act of protest” some will no doubt see a reforming movement that was insufficiently radical to realize its ends. But perhaps one might see instead a willingness on the part of Jansenist theology—far more radical in practice than that of the Reformers, whatever their rhetoric—to commit the destiny of the Church and the cause of the gospel to God alone.
Historical and sociological explanations of Christian division can certainly be true and valuable as far as they go. But Christians, at least, will want to know what God has to do with the disunity of the Church. This is not an easy question to answer. The New Testament obviously depicts a number of conflicts among Christians. But of the long–standing Western denominational status quo—separated eucharistic communities that (more or less) recognize each other as churches but are content to remain separate—there is not a trace. In fact the New Testament apparently ties the presence and purposes of God in the world so closely to the creation of a single visible eucharistic community that the status quo to which we have grown quite accustomed is virtually unintelligible. It’s not clear how to account for the obvious fact of Christian division, or to make sense of what God has to do with it.
One of Radner’s signal contributions is to have shown that there is a clear scriptural paradigm for coming to grips with the divided Church and its sober fate: that God’s Spirit is no longer with us. Biblical Israel serves as the chief figure or type of Christian division. Willfully sundered into conflicting kingdoms, scriptural Israel is abandoned by God for its loveless disobedience (see Ezekiel 10–11). Even the Lord’s beloved Zion must weep over the absence of the comforter (Lamentations 1). The destiny of divided Israel is exile, destruction, and death. Why should a divided Church expect a better fate?
Reflection on the passion of Christ only intensifies this thought. As Christian exegetes have long suggested, the crucified Jesus accepts Israel’s abandonment by God in a kind of concentrated form. Equally, Christians have insisted, the Church itself inevitably has a share in Christ’s passion; the baptized will not escape conformity to their crucified head (see Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale for a contemporary version of both points). Of course the precise character of the Church’s conformity to Christ will depend upon whether it accepts the cross willingly—bears the self–inflicted wounds of the whole body in love—or has the cross thrust upon it against its will. A stubbornly fragmented Church cannot escape the cross. Still less can it expect from its crucified head pardon for its divisions. Like divided Israel and its divinely abandoned Israelite Lord, the Church should expect instead death, and the grave.
The scriptural figure of divided Israel may thus grant us some comprehension of how Christian division may be embraced by the judgment and grace of a God who in no way wills it or tolerates it, and whose purpose in the world is the opposite of what the Church has become. It may also help us understand why so few Christians care that the Church is divided. The divisive contradiction of ecclesial love is sin, and so should lead to repentance. But divided Israel proves incapable of repentance, not for want of opportunity, but because she has foregone the spiritual resources to take offense at her own sin. “They were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush,” says Jeremiah 6:15. Even in exile, Israel can only wait for a repentance yet to come, when new life from the dead finally allows the tears of sorrow for the sins of the fathers to flow in earnest (cf. Ezra 9–10 and Nehemiah 8–9). So it is, apparently, with the divided Church. Our congregations are growing and our denominations, often enough, are flourishing. Why should we spend a lot of time and money on ecumenism, let alone worry that the Church is going to die?
This rejection of repentance may explain why modern ecumenism, despite its best efforts and intentions, has found it difficult to avoid complicity in the destructive logic of division. Christian unity, as ecumenical theologians know, must come to pass through an exchange of gifts, where each denomination supplies the other’s need and lack for the sake of the wounded whole. But in practice this vision proves impossible to sustain. Each of the divided denominations is convinced that it has all it needs in order to be Christ’s faithful Church. That any denomination might repent, might confess its need for another, is out of the question. Ecumenical dialogue has no option but to accept, albeit sometimes reluctantly, unrepentant self–sufficiency on all sides. But when the denominations approach one another on the assumption of self–sufficiency, rather than of mutual want and need, they will naturally see no need for each other’s gifts, and so feel free to spurn them. Little wonder that so much ecumenical effort has achieved so little in the way of actual unity.
To this assimilation of the divided Church to divided Israel it will surely be objected that the situation of God’s people is different after Christ. The Church cannot be abandoned as Israel once was, cannot die as Israel once did. For the moment we can leave aside the supersessionist tones in which this suggestion is often put. In any case the Church has Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Or in the language of my own Lutheran tradition, “one holy Church is to abide forever,” even if that Church may sometimes be hard to locate. That God might hand the Church over to death, that the Spirit, and so the risen Christ, are even now withdrawn from our divided eucharists, seem like thoughts completely at odds with the legitimate confidence of Christians that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
To be sure, the tomb is not the last word upon the crucified Jesus, nor exile and destruction upon divided Israel. Let us recall that after all those who had lived in division perished in exile, a remnant of Israel returned to Zion, there to begin the life of God’s people anew. We too may expect that one day a new generation will arise from the withered branches of the divided Church, and gather in unity and love around the Lord’s table, as our ancestors once did. Of course each of the divided denominations is practiced at taking itself as the faithful remnant, and the rest of the divided Church as the branches fit for burning. But this is to misunderstand the way in which Israel is a figure of the Church. The faithful remnant goes into exile along with the faithless crowd—think of Jeremiah—and both alike die in an alien land, unable to bring the song of the Lord to their lips. The death of the divided Church is still before us, only dimly perceptible. We cannot know just how it will happen, but we can expect that all the Church’s members will share the same fate, from the most ecumenically devoted to the most hardened sectarians. Still less can we know what form the Church’s new life will take, but we may hope that God will give it new life from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus does not entitle us to think that the Church can never die, but only that death will not be the last word upon it.
That the risen Christ might be absent from the Church, as I have here suggested, is not quite the same thing as Christ being entirely absent. As ecumenical theology rightly argues, there is a persistent unity of the Church in the midst of all its divisions. This is not a eucharistic unity, for there division reigns. But another sacrament, baptism, unites the warring members of Christ’s body to their head. It joins to him those who refuse to be joined to one another. So the Christ with whom baptism unites Christians is indeed present in the Church, even now.
Divided Christians should perhaps not, however, take too much comfort in this thought. As the New Testament teaches, baptism at present unites us with Christ in death (cf. Romans 6:5); the resurrection it promises still lies in the future. In baptism a willfully divided Church remains united with Christ, but with the dead Christ, deposed from his cross and ready for the tomb. In that unexpected sense it is indeed one Church. But the baptismal unity of the divided Church is no basis upon which it can rebuild its lost eucharistic unity, moving as from strength to strength. The divided Church’s genuine unity—its union with the one Christ in his death—marks it for death. The Church’s death will come not from the absence of Christ, exactly, but from the peculiar way in which a deliberately divided body is united with him. As Christ himself could not, precisely in the tomb, be without the love of God, so the divided Church cannot be separated from this love, even in its coming death.
However much we may learn from the past, we cannot change it. We may regret that no side in the sixteenth–century conflicts accepted the burden of unity that the Jansenists were later willing to bear. Just because they did not, however, our situation is different from the Jansenists’. They could bear ecclesial affliction from within, and accept the death of their own act of protest as the cost of unity in Christ. We are already divided, apparently beyond repair, having proven virtually powerless even to change the present—to escape the dreadful legacy of division. So our death will come out quite differently than did the Jansenists’.
What shall we do? Perhaps, like Israel groaning under the prophet’s word of judgment, we can only worship the Lord as we have been commanded, seek to obey him, and wait in fear and hope for what he will make of our ruined ecclesial life. This is not to say that the Church has no vocation, nothing to offer the world. By its own dying it will reveal the crucified to the world, and beyond that, in a way unfathomable to us, its new life will reveal the risen one. The coming death of the Church need not mean the demise of Christianity in the West. Rather the Church’s acceptance of its death is its only hope for life. The love of God’s servants for the rubble we have made of the Church will not be in vain. As Psalm 102 continues: “The nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory. For the Lord will build up Zion again, and appear in all his glory.”
Bruce D. Marshall is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.